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Hay meadows

Bee on scabious. Photo Andrew WalterBee on scabious. Photo Andrew Walter

By Dyane Silvester

Hay meadows were, in the early part of the 20th century, a common sight across the UK but since the second world war, and particularly since changes to agricultural practices in the 1950's, they have suffered a dramatic decline.

It has been estimated that an acre of hay meadow may contain over 2 million spiders and 5 acres contains approximately a ton of insect life. That's probably more spiders or insects than any of us wants to imagine, but without them our environment would be a very different place and the food crops we take for granted would suffer. Stand on the edge of a hay meadow and you will see a great variety of grass and flower species such as scabious, dog daisies, wood cranesbill, common knapweed and hawkbits which provide food not only for insects but for birds, rodents and mammals too.

Golden ringed dragonflies, burnet moths, meadow brown, large skipper and, if you're really lucky, marbled white butterflies are just a few of the insects which inhabit our meadows; while the adults take nectar their caterpillars feed on the leaves of specific flowers and grasses. As well as these spectacular insects, hoverflies and bees also thrive here, as do woodlice, spiders, and many mites which you won't see because they spend the majority of their life close to the ground below the flower canopy. They are joined here by bank and field voles (the latter just love sweet vernal grass), slow worms and lizards, as well as long tailed field mice and shrews which are insectivorous, and whose presence attracts kestrels and barn owls overhead. Did you know that kestrels can find these little creatures by seeing the ultraviolet light reflected from their trails of urine?

In the late summer you can be treated to a charm of goldfinches taking seeds from thistles and knapweed. This sight is beautiful and, to my mind, one of the more spectacular bird displays we see in our county.

Dropping below the grasses, into the soil, you'll find moles, earthworms and various larvae, all of whom contribute to the health of the soil which of course forms the foundation of the whole hay meadow ecosystem. That is not to say it needs to be deep and fertile: many flowers and grasses thrive on really quite poor soils.

Fortunately in recent years the benefits of well managed hay meadows to wildlife have been recognised and organisations such as Cumbria Wildlife Trust are actively involved in working with landowners to restore and manage them. In 2013, Piper Hole's meadow, near Ravenstonedale, was chosen as the county's Coronation Meadow: a great step forward for the rejuvenation and preservation of Cumbria's rich grasslands.

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